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Science: Elephantine Egg

4 minute read

A quarter-century ago in the southern part of Madagascar, a herdsman of the savage Tandroy tribe was tending his cattle on the banks of a river swollen by the torrential rains of late December and January. The tribesman caught sight of an object, bobbing lightly on the turbid water, which he would have described, had he chanced to be a U. S. college man, as a soiled white football. When he fished it ashore he saw that it was an egg, and its great size recalled to his mind the stories he had heard around village fires of a mighty bird that once roamed the island. Wrapping the prize in his loincloth, he ran with it to the chief of his village. Word of the find sped from hut to drowsy hut, and after sundown the natives jubilantly shouted and danced the war dance which they call the berida.

The chief did not know that the egg was thousands of years old, that heavy rains had washed it out of a protecting alluvial deposit, but he did suspect that the white men in the town of Ambovombe might value it for their own curious reasons. That night the chief and a few companions carried the egg to Ambovombe. After hours of haggling a merchant gave them five head of cattle for it. This man recognized the egg as that of the extinct Aepyornis titan or elephant bird, a long-necked creature with massive legs on which it stood ten feet high. From his hands the egg passed to the French administrator of the district, to another merchant, to a missionary named Gunerius Torvic. Last month Missionary Torvic reached Minnesota on leave, got in touch with an enthusiastic and learned egg-collector of San Francisco named Milton Smith Ray. A deal was arranged. In San Francisco last week Collector Ray tremulously unwrapped a package, shipped by express, consisting of twelve boxes, one inside another, each one wrapped in cotton. From the innermost box Mr. Ray removed the Aepyornis titan egg—intact.

Mr. Ray would not say what he paid for the egg but a fair guess is $10,000. It is about a foot long, about ten inches across, ivory-colored, pockmarked by sand and insects. Much bigger than the dinosaur eggs found in the Gobi by Explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, its shell is ⅛ in. thick, weighs 6 lb., must have weighed 24 lb. when the mother bird laid it. Aepyornis titan did not become extinct until after the Glacial Ages, which is almost yesterday as geological time goes. Little is known of its habits, except that it ate vegetable matter, probably snakes and lizards too. In Madagascar during the past century, several nearly complete skeletons and many fragments have been found. Scholars suspect that Aepyornis titan may have given rise to the legend of a great bird called the roc, which is told in the Arabian Nights. About 25 football-sized Aepyornis titan eggs exist in various museums. Not content with possessing one of the finest specimens known, Collector Ray last week declared his belief that his egg belongs to another and larger species than that represented by other eggs. If he is right his egg is unique.

Milton Smith Ray has on the top floor of his house a collection of 75.000 eggs and stuffed birds (some mounted by himself) which he calls the Pacific Museum of Ornithology. He refuses to admit the public but has installed an elevator to whisk friends up from the front hall.

Many of his specimens are of extinct or nearly extinct species, including the Carolina paroquet, ivory-billed woodpecker, Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon, California condor, heath hen. An able photographerof bird life, he has written three books and scores of articles on ornithology, also writes regional poetry. Bom in San Francisco 56 years ago, he is president and sole owner (with his wife) of Ray Oil Burner Co. (capitalization $1,000,000) which developed from a sheet metal business started by his father. The first Ray burner, which saw long service on a Hawaiian plantation, is now in the Smithsonian Institution, a fact of which Mr. Ray is prouder than of anything in his museum. Last week he refused to pose for photographers with his prize egg, permitted his daughter Rosalyn, 10, to do the honors (see cut).

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